3 Tips For Dealing With Racially Insensitive Remarks
If you’re a person of color, it’s probably already happened: you’re on the job, out with friends, spending time with family or just going about your life… and BOOM! You’re on the spot! Someone has said something stupid, and now it’s your move. What do you do? It may just be easier to fire back with a sharp remark, but chances are you’d like the situation to end peacefully… and quickly. Situations like that are exactly what Truth Be Told focuses on. Here are three tips we’ve learned from doing these shows that might help you in the future.
1 - Should you let it go?
If the situation doesn’t really require you to take a moral stand, it might be wiser -- and, frankly, easier -- to move on. NPR Correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates recalls a company holiday party in which a white co-worker, clearly drunk, told the DJ, a black man, “What’s up with this ni--er music?”
“He and I sort of looked at each other,” Bates recalls, “and he said, ‘I’m gonna make allowances because you are obviously plastered. You need to go sit down and have some coffee or some ice water… but you need to get out of my face.’
“And she just sort of grinned and said, ‘Okay!’ and walked away, because that’s how looped she was.”
Bates says the encounter did not surprise this DJ, who was also a co-worker -- apparently, that kind of language didn’t shock him, coming from this particular drunken colleague. Few people heard the outburst, and no one reported it, “because of the combination of stupidity and alcohol,” Bates said.
This is an important one if you can’t easily get away from the people who said or did something racist. Vincent Ray recalls moving into an apartment building in an upscale part of San Francisco when he arrived in town for his medical residency. He recalled one day, a woman held the elevator for him at his building when his hands were full.
“We start chatting,” Ray remembers, “and she said, ‘Do you live here?’ And I said, ‘Yes I live here.’ And she said, ‘Hmm, that's odd, I could've swore that the tenants and the management, we had a discussion that we weren't going to be allowing black people to live in this building.’
“She said it very matter-of-factly, and she said afterward, ‘Well, I guess that's progress for you.’”
Ray would not disclose the race of the woman who said this, but he did tell us that he decided to stay in his building. He continued to see the woman occasionally -- they kind of went on about their business as if nothing had occurred. To him, it was important that he stay put, for larger reasons.
“I was raised by my grandparents,” Ray says, “products of the civil rights movement. They were sharecroppers in Mississippi, and the only way things are going to change are if people don't move away, and they stay. Because people are educated by their surroundings every day and the less they see people like myself, the more ideas and paradigms like that become solidified.”
Vincent’s whole story is here and it's well worth a listen.
3 - Should you offer to help fix the damage?
This becomes especially valuable in situations between people with a deeper relationship, especially extended families. A hurtful remark deepened the divide between Amy Torres, a Chinese-American woman married to a Mexican-American man, and her in-laws. One Christmas they surprised her mother-in-law with a digital camera, loaded with ultrasounds of their new baby. It was a beautiful moment... until Torres’s sister-in-law, Marlene, chimed in.
“(Marlene) kind of said, ‘Well, do you know what the gender is?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s too early, I -- we don’t know yet.’ And she said.... ‘Well, it looks like the baby’s gonna be... part Chinese!’ And then everyone kind of, like, laughed or, I mean, I uncomfortably laughed... (my husband) might’ve just been completely silent. ...And I just remember (thinking), 'Oh, my God, I’m just so sick to my stomach right now. I can’t believe she said that!'”
Torres says she and her husband fell into a pattern of griping about these slights to themselves, privately, instead of firing back an insult. That seemed to help keep the peace, at a high emotional price. And the fact that it's happening not with strangers, but with family members, makes it even more stressful.
"I have never heard any of our friends say anything regarding our races," says Torres. "But then, it kind of makes me sad, because... maybe they’re thinking it. Because our own family, my brother and his sister are constantly bring it up, it’s making me feel strange to be around my own husband."
Marlene Torres said she did not remember making this comment but trusts Amy's version of events. She added that she considers herself an open-minded person, and she didn't see why such a comment would hurt Amy's feelings. But Marlene did express a willingness to talk things over. That conversation could be fruitful, but a person in Amy's position might have to be the one to start it and guide it in a productive direction.
"They may have to do that old psychotherapist's trick of not, 'you make me feel' but 'I feel like'," says NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates. "(Amy could) say, 'Marlene, you say you don't mean it, I'm taking you at face value, but I'm telling you: I just feel really crummy when you say these things, because it makes me feel objectified. ...Do you really want me to be part of your family? Can you and I be sisters?'"